What Novels Can Do That Movies Can’t, and Why We Need to Keep Writing Them
Get inspired by the power of the classic novel in Tim Weed's upcoming course "Reading Like a Writer: Ernest Hemingway."
It takes years of applied study and a huge investment of time and energy to create a viable novel, and let’s face it: publishing is a crapshoot. You may not find a publisher, and even if you do find one – or if you make the risky decision to self-publish – your painstakingly crafted opus may never reach a wider audience. Why would anyone voluntarily sign up for such an ordeal, especially now, when film and TV and gaming, not books, appear to be ascendant?
One of the great things about being alive in the twenty-first century is the abundance of good movies – and, lately, of good and even great TV series. But the happy truth is, even in this environment, novels are holding their own. This may be due to what novelist and writing teacher John Gardner referred to as the “vivid, continuous dream” of fiction, which is more than a writing workshop cliché. Good novels have the power to colonize a reader’s imagination so completely that putting them down is like parting with a beloved friend. Novels meet a basic human need. They are an essential art form, because they offer a way of experiencing life not possible in any other medium.
Don’t get me wrong: film is a wonderful art. It’s a vital and fascinating art. The best movies provide a gripping, emotional, and even a cathartic experience, but the effect is ephemeral and of limited duration. The best novels generate a connective electrical current; they create a living interface between two human minds. The great Robert Stone once told me that we all have two stories: the one we’re carrying around inside, and the one we’re experiencing in the material world. Where the interior and exterior stories meet is the domain of literature. Film can’t fully capture the interior story.
Ernest Hemingway wrote, “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.”
Film can’t accomplish that – not in the same visceral, all-encompassing way – which is why the novel isn't going away any time soon, and why it’s very much worth making the sacrifices required to write one.
We’ve all seen movies based on novels. There are many of them out there, and many more on the way. What are the main differences between the two experiences, do you think? Here’s my take:
- Novels give us friends for life. Reading a novel takes a relatively long time, and we spend countless hours with its characters. We experience the story alongside them – even, quite often, from inside their minds. We empathize with their emotions. On occasion, our identification may be so strong that we forget ourselves entirely; our thoughts and emotions and visions may seem to become theirs for a time. In a movie, there may be an inkling of this effect, but it doesn’t have the same power or longevity. The characters in the best novels enter our consciousness permanently – they become our friends for life.
- Novels let us inhabit other worlds. Contemporary cinematography can be stunning, breathtaking, but our enjoyment of it is fleeting, like lush, spectacular landscapes viewed from the window of a bus or a low-flying helicopter. In a novel, we dwell within the setting, our imaginations working in concert with the author’s to generate a wholly new imagined reality. This is why the best novels leave us with the sensation of having actually been to Middle Earth or the Sahara or 16th century Britain or post-apocalyptic America, rather than just having witnessed a dazzling spectacle on a screen.
- Novels connect us. Undergoing a journey through one of these vivid novelistic worlds, in the company of fascinating characters on deeply perilous internal and external journeys, can be a life-changing adventure. It can get under your skin; it can permeate your consciousness; it can complicate and enlarge your perspective. Reading fiction, on the deepest level, is communion. It increases our faculties of compassion and understanding, and by encouraging us to see the world from radically different perspectives, it gives us the capacity to define the terms of our own existence.
Novels are by far our greatest teachers. They equip us to live rich, independent, intentional lives. That’s why, even in the uncertain terrain of contemporary publishing, it’s worth taking the time and making the sacrifices it takes to create them.
Tim Weed’s first novel, Will Poole’s Island (2014), was named one of Bank Street College of Education’s Best Books of the Year. His short fiction collection, A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing (2017), has been shortlisted for the International Book Awards, the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project, the Autumn House Press Fiction Prize, and the Lewis-Clark Press Discovery Award. Tim is the winner of a Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Award and his work has appeared in The Millions, Colorado Review, Talking Points Memo, Writer's Chronicle, Talking Writing, Fiction Writers Review and elsewhere. He lives in southern Vermont, works as a featured expert for National Geographic in Patagonia and Spain, and is the co-founder of the Cuba Writers Program.See other articles by Timothy Weed